When Home-Based Travel Agent spoke with some of the hospitality industry's leading technology experts, most agreed that consumer trends and guests' evolving needs were driving many of the technological advances in hotels. "Until recently, property owners were more concerned about the return per square foot rather than guest comfort," says Fraser Hickox, head of Peninsula Hotels' Electronic Services Department. "But a greater awareness has forced change." State-of-the-art bedside control panel in a guest room at The Peninsula Tokyo
While the range of "change" varies across chains, Peninsula Hotels (www.peninsula.com), on the luxury end of the market, has its own research and development facilities, charged with custom-designing and building equipment for the hotels, which is then tested by another department. At the company's newest property, The Peninsula Tokyo (which debuted September 1), every room has a wireless bedside panel, from which guests can control temperature, lighting, telephone, alarm clock, curtains and audio-visual systems. A night light button on the panel even illuminates a path to the bathroom, so guests won't be fumbling in the dark. A "Do Not Disturb" button on the panel not only lights up outside of the room, it turns off the doorbell and notifies housekeeping not to enter.
The Tokyo hotel also has the capability to connect personal mobile phone calls to guest room telephones as well as converting the guest room phone to a mobile phone outside of the hotel, which can be used for outgoing calls within the metropolitan area.
Peninsula also installed devices not typically found in hotel rooms, such as humidifiers and nail dryers. To make guests feel right at home, the hotel automatically presets Internet radio (with more than 3,000 stations) to the guest's home country.
When Fairmont (www.fairmont.com) reopens The Plaza in New York in January, it will be the company's most high-tech property. Taking optimal advantage of wireless capabilities, guest rooms will be outfitted with portable, wireless tablets that control lighting, heating and entertainment in the room, and serve as a means to communicate with the hotel valet, concierge and other departments. The Plaza will also feature an RFID card system on guest room doors. Once guests get close to their door, they won't need to put a key in the lock. The card basically recognizes the radio frequency and unlocks the door. "We want to make sure we are using proven technology and making our guests feel as comfortable as they are in their home or office environment," says Vineet Gupta, senior vice president of technology at Fairmont. Gupta adds that moving forward, the company plans to make new properties in Fairmont's portfolio as high-tech as, if not more high-tech than, The Plaza.
Hilton's Sight + Sound Room
With entertainment options and connectivity at the core of many of the industry's latest developments, Hilton (www.hilton.com) created a specialized room category, Sight + Sound, which premiered in April. The Sight + Sound Room is in a testing phase in 25 rooms at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare International Airport and 30 rooms at the Hilton San Francisco. "We were seeing changing trends with our guests who are traveling more with iPods and their own media content," says Robert Machen, vice president of corporate and brand solutions for Hilton. "We needed to provide a different technical offering in guest rooms to meet their needs."
The premium room, which is priced about $20 to $30 higher than a standard guest room, offers an enhanced entertainment experience. Guests can watch television programs on demand, view 14 high-definition channels on the 42-inch flat-screen plasma TV and access at least five XM Satellite Radio stations. The Sight + Sound rooms are also outfitted with a Yamaha YSP-800 digital sound projector.
Guests are also able to use a connectivity panel in the room to hook up portable devices such as MP3 players, digital cameras and laptops to the plasma TV and surround-sound system. Machen says, "It's a fully integrated solution that's simple and straightforward," as all the technological components are integrated into one remote control.
Machen says feedback on the Sight + Sound rooms has been extremely positive and adds that Hilton is expanding the pilot program to other hotels.
For Hyatt Hotels, technology played a critical role in developing its newest brand, Hyatt Place (www.hyattplace.com). According to Alison Kal, vice president of marketing at Hyatt Corp., "People's lives have changed; they are constantly multitasking, often simultaneously performing professional and personal tasks."
Home Away from Home
Prior to Hyatt Place's launch, Kal says, "there wasn't a hotel that provided an environment that allowed guests to make a transition from their daily life to life away from home. Now, thanks to a combination of technology, service and amenities, Hyatt Place guests can seamlessly shift from home to the hotel in a way they couldn't before."
All properties in the brand have a plug panel—a device on the entertainment center that lets guests connect portable media, such as MP3 players, DVD players and laptop computers, into the television. Hyatt Place also has free Wi-Fi and a touch-screen menu in the guest kitchen from which people can custom-order food as well as print documents from their room to the e-room printer.
Earlier this year, Marriott (www.marriott.com) unveiled a plug-in panel through which guests connect various digital devices—such as laptops, camcorders and digital cameras—to high-definition LCD televisions in guest rooms. TV screens can even be split so a guest can watch a show while checking e-mail or surfing the Internet or play a video game while listening to an iPod.
The new TVs also increase channel selection, from 28 to approximately 64. By the end of the year, the company expects to have the new technology in 25 percent of rooms in Marriott, JW Marriott and Renaissance hotels and resorts in the U.S. and Canada. A complete rollout is slated for 2009.
Another recent technological launch came from Starwood Hotels & Resorts (www.starwoodhotels.com), which announced its new computer product, called Microsoft Surface, at Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. The device, a 30-inch display in a table form, enables guests to search and listen to music, create playlists, send photos home, download books and order food using a credit card or a Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty card. The company says it will begin rollout of the technology in key hotels throughout the U.S. by the end of the year.
Surface operates without a mouse or keyboard; guests just use their hands and natural movements. Objects labeled with tags (similar to barcodes) are recognized by Surface, so if, for instance, guests set a "tagged" wine bottle on the table, they'll be able to retrieve information about the wine, view pictures from the vineyard where it originated and receive suggestions on what food from the hotel's restaurant menu to pair with the wine.
Sister brand W Hotels has introduced Nokia Internet tablets, which are available in the living room of select properties. Guests can use the complimentary tablets to surf the Internet or check their e-mail. To keep in touch with family and friends, the W New York-Times Square has the Nokia N Series Whisper Booth. Created exclusively for W Hotels, this phone booth-like setup allows guests to go behind a curtain, take pictures on a Nokia phone and e-mail the photos. Need to charge your phone? The booth even has a phone charger. Also look for W Hotels to install its Jack Pack in new and renovated properties. The Jack Pack is a unit built into the desk or located on a wall near the desk with multiple outlets. Some have connections that allow laptops to sync with the television. —Erin F. Sternthal